People Don’t Read

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

n my profession, details and deadlines matter.  I document them so people know what to do and when to do it.  Everything has a beginning, middle and end with no do-overs.  In my profession, details and deadlines matter. I document them so people know what to do and when to do it. Everything has a beginning, middle and end with no do-overs. When people don’t read the information I send they invariably:

  • Miss or forget a deadline
  • Submit incorrectly
  • Go to the wrong location
  • Arrive too early or too late
  • Add to someone else’s workload

I am tempted to say reading isn’t difficult, but for some people it is. Reading a document, following sequential instructions, and responding to an action or deliverable often exceeds a person’s concentration abilities. Why? Because people have forgotten how to read.

Reading forces us to concentrate on the printed word and in today’s environments that can be challenging. We are busy people surrounded by demands with too much detail and we have learned to skim rather than read them. We fail to absorb the content.

The New Way to Read

People don’t read. At least not the way they used to.  We like a post on Facebook, or scan a friends latest Instagram. We have trained ourselves to browse. Our eyes follow a Z pattern — we start in the left hand corner, head right and skim a diagonal line down to the bottom left and go right again. We miss a great deal and comprehend even less.

Words have migrated from paper to pixels.  The written word has been replaced with phones, laptops, televisions, billboards and tablets. They are no longer ink on paper; they are on a glass surface inches from our face, in thousands of colors and fonts.  America was founded on the written world. Success depended on literacy.  Affluence was rooted in the ability to read and write. Today we live in a digital world and 4.5 billion screens brighten our lives and our desks.

Words have migrated from paper to pixels. The written word has been replaced with phones, laptops, televisions, billboards and tablets.They are no longer ink on paper; they are on a glass surface inches from our face, in thousands of colors and fonts.

According to the Smithsonian Institute we have become People of the Screen. Screens fill our desks, hands, wrists, pockets, briefcases, dashboards, and walls.  We sit in front them regardless of what we do. Screens are the first place we look when we get up and the last thing we check before we go to sleep. We depend on them for information, friends, news, research and entertainment.

You’ve Got Mail

In 2015, daily emails sent and received totaled over 205 billion and the number of worldwide email users is nearly three billion.

In 2015, daily emails sent and received totaled over 205 billion and the number of worldwide email users is nearly three billion. More than a quarter of most employees’ time is spent sending, receiving or sorting email. We spend an average of 81 work days on nothing but email—much of it to other people in the same office.

It’s email overload.The average user has two email accounts and the average inbox gets 100 emails per day. A typical work day lasts from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm because employees are checking work emails outside of office hours.

So it’s not surprising the one email I send that must be read gets overlooked. In part because it’s one of hundreds and because they know they don’t have to read it—they can just ask me.

I mark it with an urgent ! and include the words “Important – Please Read” in the subject line. Less than half of the recipients actually do it.

The Fallout

I recently managed an event in Las Vegas attended by 47 employees from my company. I sent a ‘know before you go’ staffing guide with everything from hotel confirmation numbers to information on registration, meals, booth attire and conference locations. Within hours of my arrival I began receiving texts that began “Hey Suze, do you know…”.  

I know and respond; because my events run like a Swiss watch. One group text read “get to breakfast early, at 9:30 there was nothing left.” Breakfast ran from 7 to 9, clearly stated in the guide.

The epic failure on the part of my team increased my workload and the questions continued throughout the event.

  • What room am I speaking in?
  • Where do I pick up my shirt?
  • What time do I have to be there?
  • When does the event end?
  • Where is the customer dinner?

Some might say don’t respond, but that’s not who I am. The success of the event rests with me and my team; we do what must be done to make it happen.

It’s not just work. A few years ago we left on a family vacation; arriving for our 8:00 am fight only to discover we had booked the 8:00 pm flight. It happens.The departure was 8:00 and the arrival was 11:00; it could have gone either way.

We blamed each other, confusing choices, unclear page layouts and the airlines themselves. Anything but acknowledging nobody read the times properly! Apart from the delay we had no major fallout and enjoyed a day in the city before we left.  We are still married.

The Fix

We have learned to skim information, assuring ourselves relevant data will be found. Our days are inundated with email, articles, social media, tweets, posts and instant messages containing too much information.

We’ve learned to read sound-bites. On a page containing 100 words, 50 of them are read. We glance at headlines or titles and assume we know what it’s about; if not, someone will tell us.

This is the part where I talk about solutions, but…I got nothing. There is no fix without changing how and what we read.

Make reading easier. The purpose of reading is to extract meaning and facts from text. Simplify content with short paragraphs and clear ideas. Write fewer emails and replace them with conversations.

  • Chose less screen time and fewer screens
  • Eliminate interference
  • Minimize the assault of must-read documents
  • Slow down
  • Skim first, then read again more thoroughly
  • Admit nobody reads a manifesto
  • Read for pleasure

The purpose of reading is comprehension.It builds knowledge, hones concentration and recall and provides a screen respite when you chose a book. Reading matters.

2 thoughts on “People Don’t Read

  1. It’s not just reading. The “twitter phenomenon” has, IMHO, conditioned us to seek sound-bite-length thoughts. I’ve met people who, literally, despite being clearly intelligent, can’t fathom a spoken sentence in a discussion unless it’s really short.

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